On a cold November day in 1963, thirteen-year-old Arthur Owens picks up a brick and flings it at an old man’s head.
Luckily, Arthur’s aim isn’t perfect, and the old trash picker leans over to straighten his cart at exactly the right moment—still, the brick slams into the Junk Man’s shoulder, and he has to be rushed to the hospital.
The next day, the newspaper runs the story with the headline, “Thirteen-year-old boy attacks city man.”
What everyone wants to know is why. The judge who will decide Arthur’s future asks him the question directly.
Did he throw the brick because Mr. Hampton looked like a helpless old man? Was he attempting to rob him? Was it the color of his skin?
In a barely audible voice, Arthur answers, “It was because of his hat, Your Honor.”
The judge is ready to send Arthur to juvie for years, but the Junk Man suggests an alternative: 120 hours of community service, working for the Junk Man himself.
With his injuries, the old man can’t do his usual rounds. This becomes Arthur’s job every Saturday: rummage through the neighborhood trash and collect items from the man’s list of the seven most important things—lightbulbs, foil, mirrors, pieces of wood, glass bottles, coffee cans, and cardboard.
Arthur has two questions. First of all, how will he endure the humiliation? And secondly, what could anyone want with so many coffee cans and old lightbulbs?
Genre: historical fiction
Anna’s take on it:
When I booktalk this title, I usually read the first two paragraphs of chapter one aloud. There’s always a gasp across the room when they hear that Arthur throws the brick at the old man’s head. And plenty of muttering when I mention the hat. “What does that have to do with anything?”
The character of the Junk Man is based on the artist James Hampton. I didn’t know anything about him before I read the book, but by halfway through, I absolutely had to look up images of his work. There are some good photos on the Smithsonian American Art Museum website–a glimpse of what the artist actually did with all those empty coffee cans and burnt out lightbulbs.
I haven’t had kids swarming this title, but they seem intrigued. And I enjoy booktalking it. A couple of sixth grade students were already reading it when I visited their classes, and they reported really liking it.